The Elgin Military Museum plans to build a 15,000-square-foot museum of naval history adjacent to the submarine Ojibwa, which has found a new home on land near the harbour in Port Burwell. It’s here that exhibits will tell Canada’s Cold War submarine stories, education will take place and visitors can shop for gifts or enjoy a bite to eat. Public sub tours are scheduled to begin in summer 2013, with construction on the naval museum building tentatively set to begin in fall 2013, with the official opening in summer 2014, in time to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Canadian Submarine Service. (Artist drawing courtesy Elgin Military Museum)

Rescued Ojibwa submarine safe and sound in Port Burwell and preparing for new mission as an interactive museum

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With the five-storey, 297-foot-long decommissioned Cold War-era submarine HMCS Ojibwa finally safe and sound at her new home in the Lake Erie village of Port Burwell, work can begin to transform the sub, saved from the scrap heap, into an interactive museum. 

Excitement is building, with everyone from residents to sailors to politicians and businesses ready to lend support. 

Even Canada Post is getting into the spirit of things, with a special Ojibwa submarine logo to be hand-stamped on all outgoing mail brought to the counter at the Port Burwell post office. The commemorative mark will be used for the next six months. If you're a visitor checking out the submarine, why not send yourself a letter home so you can receive the commemorative mark. Or better yet, send yourself one of the special Ojibwa postcards available from the Elgin Military Museum, the organization behind Project Ojibwa.

Area vintner Rush Creek Wines is also jumping aboard the sub museum bandwagon, with the issue of two fundraiser wines. The Rockin' Raspberry off-dry red and the Simply Apple semi-dry white wines both sport one-of-a-kind submarine labels. Buy either of these wines over the next year and the winery will donate 65 cents per bottle toward the museum fundraising effort.

The ambitious project — the price tag to acquire the submarine from the federal government, transport it from Halifax to Port Burwell and mount her on a permanent foundation on dry land is a cool $6 million — is a labour of love for the Elgin Military Museum, which jumped at the opportunity to add the Ojibwa to its museum, headquartered in St. Thomas.  

“Everything is coming together now,” says Ian Raven, executive director of the Elgin Military Museum. “We’ve moved from engineers sitting around a table planning to doing.”  

Because transporting the submarine to landlocked St. Thomas would be an expensive nightmare, the museum’s principals, armed with the promise of a $1.9-million federal community adjustment grant in 2009, went searching for a nearby home with easy lake access.  

When a proposed location in Port Stanley, 15 kilometres south of St. Thomas, didn’t work out, officials in the neighbouring Municipality of Bayham, which includes Port Burwell, went to work selling their Lake Erie community of 1,200 souls as the perfect spot for what is expected to become the largest tourist attraction for miles around — between 80,000 and 100,000 visitors a year are forecast.

Finding the perfect location for the submarine and a planned “sub” station interpretation centre — complete with naval museum, classroom, gift shop and restaurant — was the easy part. Moving the 60-foot-tall Ojibwa to her new home would require months of planning and engineering work, not to mention military precision.  

“It’s a very complex thing moving something five-storeys high and almost 300 feet long and turning it into a building,” says Melissa Raven, director of communications for the Elgin Military Museum and Project Ojibwa.

Welcome party on the beach 

Part One was accomplished in the spring, when the tug Florence M. towed the Ojibwa, safely settled on a floating drydock designed by Heddle Marine of Hamilton, from Halifax beginning on May 26, 2012. It was quite a spectacle as the submarine travelled up the coast of Nova Scotia, through the Straits of Canso, across the Gulf of St. Lawrence and up the St. Lawrence River to Hamilton, arriving at the west end of Lake Ontario on June 5. Once there, the Ojibwa settled in at the Heddle Marine dockyards for the summer and early fall to be spiffed up and outfitted with cradles for the final leg of the journey through the Welland Canal to Port Burwell on Lake Erie and then onto dry land.  

With the weather all-clear, the Ojibwa arrived in Port Burwell to cheering crowds and cannon fire on Nov. 20, delayed by about a week due to poor lake conditions caused by the remnants of Hurricane Sandy. No one seemed to mind as villagers and visitors gathered on the beach to welcome her home.

Off-load day — that’s when the submarine will be driven ashore, carried by an 84-axle formation of self-propelled heavy lift trailers, moved overland and carefully manoeuvred onto a permanent mount — was held a week later. Again, another small delay due to weather — this time wind and snow.

Ian Raven says the Ojibwa, which was finally placed on exhibit cradles weighing about 38 tons atop a permanent foundation, will require “a lot of work” over the winter to prepare it for guided tours in 2013, including the installation of wiring and heating and cooling.  

In case you’re wondering, the decision to keep the Ojibwa ashore, rather than turning her into a floating museum on the lake, meant a heavy-duty foundation needed to be engineered. There are four pads four feet thick containing a total of 400 cubic metres of concrete, plus a smaller one. The pads are held in place with 36 steel piles that stretch down into the ground 120 feet.  

“Ours will be quite the different experience,” Melissa Raven tells of the soon-to-be submarine tourist attraction, which will be accessible to a wider range of visitors because they can enter through doors, rather than climbing down ladders.

Submarine will be equipped for sleepovers ...

Visitors will first check in to an administration building for a short orientation before guided tours of the sub. They’ll learn about the history of the Ojibwa and submarines in Canada and can ask guides questions. “This is about the people of the submarine service and the guides are here to help tell their stories,” she says.  

The submarine, which will also be equipped for sleepovers, is expected to be ready in the spring for what Raven is calling “shakedown tours” — designed mostly for guides to practice for the public tours to be held beginning in summer 2013.  

There is much more work to do after the tours are launched, however. The Elgin Military Museum plans to build a 15,000-square-foot museum of naval history adjacent to the submarine. It’s here that exhibits will tell Canada’s Cold War submarine stories, education will take place and visitors can shop for gifts or enjoy a bite to eat. More fundraising will be needed to build this part of the project. While there is no price tag, there is a proposed schedule: construction to begin in fall 2013 and the official opening to be held in summer 2014, in time to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Canadian Submarine Service.

A tad ambitious? Not with this gung-ho, but cash-cautious, organization at the helm and a score of backers across the country. In fact, the Elgin Military Museum is so certain it has a winner on its hands that it expects to be debt-free within a decade.

“We’re confident we can raise the funds,” Melissa Raven says of the $6-million cost of acquiring, moving and mounting the submarine. The museum has received a line of credit from a major bank based on repayment of the entire loan in eight years, with the funds based solely on projected revenue from the tourist attraction. The loan has been guaranteed by the Municipality of Bayham.

“It’s huge from Bayham,” Raven says of the guarantee. “They’re a tiny community and that’s a huge commitment on their part.”  

The sub museum will create permanent jobs, injecting an estimated annual payroll of $500,000 into the local economy, not to mention the spin-off tourist dollars the project will generate. Tourism is important to Port Burwell, whose early economic engines included shipbuilding, fishing and shipping. Today, the village is known for its beautiful sandy beaches, provincial park and historic lighthouse.

Once sub tours begin in 2013, Port Burwell can be marketed to Americans as part of a Great Lakes submarine tour. The USS Croaker at Buffalo and the USS Cod at Cleveland, both Second World War fighting craft, are popular in-water museums, and their supporters are eager to welcome the Ojibwa to the fold.  

You can check out the project website for updates on the museum and on how you can support it. — Updated November 2012

For hours of operation and how to purchase tickets, visit the Project Ojibwa website.